Workers' Stories in the COVID-19 Era: Installment #11
September 2, 2021
Written by Christina Love (Undergraduate Student, Indigenous Studies and French)
Edited by Tinu Koithara Mathew (PhD Student, School of Human Resource Management)
In the eleventh installment of the Workers' Stories in the COVID-19 Era dialogue series, we interviewed Attilio, a former worker at an Old Navy store in Ontario. Attilio describes the disillusionment many student workers felt during the pandemic. Attilio primarily wishes that the government did more for students and that they had access to more resources and benefits when they need them most.
For privacy, all names have been changed to protect the identities of our interviewees.
Christina: Tell me a little bit about your job. How did you get hired, what were some typical duties, and if you're not still working there, why not?
Attilio: I started to send out job applications on Indeed in September and I had some rough luck with that for awhile. Then in late October I got a call for an interview at a local Old Navy store. Around early November, I got hired there. I worked there part-time from early November to around mid-December, which is the point when I got laid off.
My typical duties would have been folding clothes and putting them on stands. I mostly did merchandising. What a lot of customers would do is that they would take clothes with them to the checkout line and inevitably some of them would decide last minute to not buy those clothes. The cashiers would dump the castoffs in a bin right behind the register and we would come over every five minutes or so, collect the bin of clothes, refold them, tag them appropriately, and put them back to where they were supposed to be.
I did not stay on long enough to be trained for other stuff like cashier work, because when COVID-19 quarantine regulations became stricter in December of 2020, they couldn’t keep their newer staff and I got cut. This was an incremental process and I got much-reduced hours before the final cut.
Christina: How do you think that the pandemic has impacted the job search, as well as working conditions?
Attilio: The two biggest impacts that COVID-19 had on my working experience was the reduced traffic at my store, which impacted job retention, and the difficulty of finding work in the first place. Basically, since there was decreased revenue, my wages couldn’t be justified by the corporation, so they laid me off. They did mention that I should re-apply when things get laxer, but that hasn’t happened yet. Due to the pandemic and restrictions, I’ve also found it harder to get work in general. A lot of places just aren’t hiring. So that's been the impact of COVID-19 on my employment career so far.
A lot of places just aren’t hiring.
Christina: I understand you’re a university student; why did you initially pursue getting employment during the pandemic?
Attilio: It was mainly for peace-of-mind. My mom is very cautious with how and how much she spends her money. She tries to put forward that no matter what needs to be spent, whether it's tuition, medical treatment, or trips and things, she can do it. While I acknowledge that her putting out this sort of outlook is the result of her hard work after immigrating to Canada, we’re very much still lower middle class and I want to help. Tuition is not cheap, some medical procedures I’m pursuing are not cheap; I’m able and willing to work so that’s why I wanted to get a job.
Tuition is not cheap, some medical procedures I’m pursuing are not cheap; I’m able and willing to work so that’s why I wanted to get a job.
Christina: Do you think that the government did well with pandemic regulations? What might you have done differently if you had power?
Attilio: If I had power, I would have made the regulations on quarantining stricter so that you didn't have to go through these cycles of huge case counts, lower case counts, huge case counts… It’s inefficient and isn’t based on the best interests of the people so much as businesses. This response badly affected people's jobs, especially students and their capacity to find paid employment. My main issue can really be boiled down to the short-term memory of a lot of these policies.
If I had power, I would have made the regulations on quarantining stricter so that you didn't have to go through these cycles of huge case counts, lower case counts, huge case counts…
I'm also not sure if this was the company of Old Navy not being allowed to do this because the government prevented them, or that Old Navy didn't want to do this for the sake of their sales and the government didn't care enough to force them, but I would change the response to masking that the company had. Even though Old Navy would play announcements in their store stating that customers must be wearing a mask when they come in, that was not actually a rule they let us enforce. The most we could do was gently remind people to put on a mask and offer them one. If they would refuse, or yell at us, or anything like that, we would just have to take it and let them walk around the store.
Thankfully I don't have people in my household, like the elderly or young children, who are at a higher risk of complications with COVID. But regardless of that, there are many people, many workers, who are in that sort of situation, and the fact that the government refuses to make masking an enforceable rule inside buildings is mind-boggling. I think that people can obviously have their free decision to put their lives at risk, they just shouldn’t have the decision to put others’ lives at risk.
Christina: What have you learned about employment and/or labour because of working during the pandemic?
Attilio: I've learned that finding long-term employment, specifically long-term part-time employment, is probably naively hopeful, at best, during the pandemic. Most places you'd find work at probably already have no shortage of current employees who have more experience doing that job than you would, as someone new. This has translated to new workers only being brought on as temporary extra labour until the next wave inevitably hits.
Jumping from job to job is the way of life for most students in my position. It's what I see until the pandemic is over, quote unquote. To put it lightly, there’s a huge amount of job insecurity for part-timers.
Christina: If you could tell the public anything about your experience working during the pandemic, what sort of message would you want to get out into the world?
Attilio: I would say don't hedge your bets on whatever current employment you have, and always be ready at any given point to switch to a new form employment. You, as an individual, are inconsequential to your employer. Even if things seem fine now, and even if you might feel that the restrictions are over, and the pandemic might be over, it's very easy for everything to tighten once again, and then you're out of a job. It's best to have backup plans, and backup employment ideas, in mind.
You, as an individual, are inconsequential to your employer.
Christina: If you were given ultimate power over the political, economic, and social conditions of your community, how would you have done things differently? Specifically concerning the pandemic’s impacts on the working class and student workers.
Attilio: It's honestly sort of hard to answer this without coming across as a smarmy know-it-all, I'm sure that there are people smarter than me who have thought of better ideas. If it was up to me, I would probably have kept the restrictions for a longer period before I allowed everything to resume, rather than just continually having this financial instability, where you can be put in and out of a job based on the current state of government pandering towards businesses and corporations. You know, loosening restrictions on a whim just because things look nice in the moment. This kind of insecurity has been really hard for student workers especially and they’ve just been going through these seasons of either losing their jobs or being afraid of losing their jobs.
As far as students are concerned, I would probably help them by reducing the criteria for government benefits. For example, a student who’s in my position and who only gets a job once they’re already in university, and who gets laid off shortly into their employment, cannot access financial benefits like Employment Insurance or the Canada Recovery Benefit. If I recall correctly, you need about 500 hours working beforehand to qualify and a certain amount of income. If you've been working since high school, that's probably not too much of an issue for you. However, if you're the type of person who has, say, only worked a bit in high school, but just started to work more when they're in university and the pandemic hits, you’re out of luck.
All in all, I would put more money towards student worker benefits, and benefits for workers in general, who’ve gotten screwed over during this pandemic.